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Jesus Christ: Our Sabbath Fulfilled

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     In Romans 10:4, Paul writes, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Jesus completes or fulfills the Law, not just by observing its regulations but by embodying its meaning. Jesus fulfills the Law not by doing the mandates of the Law but by being the true Law. A poignant expression of this principle is found in John’s accounts of Christ’s Sabbath-day activities.
     Some commentators find hints of Sabbath-day encounters in John’s Gospel as early as the wedding feast at Cana in chapter two and Christ’s dialogue with the Samaritan woman in chapter four, but the more obvious accounts of Christ’s healings on the Sabbath provide a surer footing for discussion and are ample evidence of Christ’s identity as the fulfillment of the Law. There are two such Sabbath-day healings recorded in John’s Gospel and they both reveal that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath.
     The first account is contained in John 5:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda . . . One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”  The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.”  Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. (John 5:2–9)
The second account is contained in John 9:
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. . . . [H]e spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” . . . So he went and washed and came back seeing. . . .  Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. (John 9:1, 6–7, 14)
     In these two passages, Jesus emphasizes the obsolete nature of the Sabbath in two provocative ways.

The Sabbath Healings Involve Superfluous Timing

     In both cases, the healing could have waited until the next day. The man at the pool of Bethesda had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. The blind man had been blind all of his life. If Jesus had felt at all constrained by the Sabbath regulations governing labor, he could easily have waited 24 hours. He could have returned the next day. These were by no means urgent cases, after all. And yet he flaunts such considerations and heals the invalid and the blind man immediately, the Sabbath-day notwithstanding.

The Sabbath Healings Involve Superfluous Labor

     In both cases, Jesus initiates an act of labor entirely superfluous to the actual healing. In the case of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda, Jesus instructs the healed man to “take up your bed and walk.” The Jewish regulations that had grown up around Sabbath-day observance forbade the carrying of burdens from one place to another. This flagrant disregard of the religious custom is not overlooked by the authorities, who rebuke the healed man: “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed” (5:10).
     Similarly, in the healing of the man born blind, Jesus does not merely pronounce healing over him, as he does in so many other miraculous healings. Instead he spits into the dirt, mixes it up, and daubs the resulting poultice onto the man’s eyes. As Jesus stood there, mixing his saliva into the dust with the toe of his foot or the tip of his finger, he was performing an entirely unnecessary act of physical labor. The healing itself is not enough of a bucking of the system. Jesus insists on driving home his object lesson with more gratuitous Sabbath work.
     Jesus’ own explanation of his actions center around his inherent identity. In the case of the invalid in chapter five, Jesus justifies himself by means of his identity as the Son of the Father: “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (5:17). In the case of the blind man in chapter nine, Jesus predicates his Sabbath labor on the grounds of his identity as the one sent by God: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4–5). In other words, Jesus’ actions are determined by his divine identity not by the laws of men. The rules are adjusted to accommodate him, he doesn’t adjust himself to accommodate the rules.
     This is not a case of situational ethics. It is not an instance of subjective values. It is rather the quite natural effect of the presence of the divine. It is not that Jesus can break the Law and get away with it; it is that what Jesus does is the Law. Jesus can no more dishonor the Sabbath than water can dishonor moisture. Jesus is the true Sabbath and when one is with him, one is, by definition, fulfilling the Sabbath. To be in fellowship with Jesus is to be in submission to the true Law. This is why John will later say: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning” (I John 3:6). It simply can’t be done. It is like what C.S. Lewis’s Aslan says to Caspian at the end of The Silver Chair, after Caspian has died and been reborn into Aslan’s continual presence: “You cannot want wrong things anymore.”
     And how does Jesus bring us into his Sabbath-fulfilling orbit such that he alone is central and all regulations are banished to the periphery? He does it finally by submitting himself to the Sabbath. The regulations of the Sabbath appear one more time in John’s Gospel. After Jesus has breathed his last breath, his enemies, still futilely constrained by Sabbath regulations, demand that the legs of the criminals on the crosses be broken and their bodies removed. They trade kindness and pity for their religious observances. And the result is that Jesus’ body is removed and placed in a tomb where it lays for the rest of that day and the next; on the third day, it rises. The single full day that Jesus’ body rests in the tomb is the Sabbath day. Finally, in his death, Jesus observes that Sabbath-rest which the religious authorities had been pestering him about all along. It is the irony of God himself that in the deathly stillness of that particular Sabbath, Christ accomplished his greatest labor of all.

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